What Ever Happened To The Tambourine?

by Kevin Burton

   Hey man, do you dig the tambourine? 

   They sure did back in the 60s.  It was everywhere!  Is there any surer stamp marking the time a record was produced, than the prominent use of tambourine? 

   Just for fun I grabbed one of my 60s compilation CDs, “Feelin’ Groovy” put out by Rhino Entertainment, to see how many of the tracks had tambourine on them. 

  I heard the instrument on four of the nine, “Good Morning Starshine” by Oliver, “It’s A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals, “Lazy Day” by Spanky and our Gang, and I think, “Up, Up And Away,” by the 5th Dimension.

   I thought that was a low percentage, so I grabbed “Billboard Top Rock and Roll Hits of 1966” also distributed by Rhino and heard tambourine on seven of the ten songs.  I did not hear the instrument on “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells or “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge. 

    That’s a small sample size, but you wouldn’t need Jerry Lee Lewis to tell you that in the 60s there was a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

   The tambourine was in a lot of cool music. But was the tambourine cool or just attached to music that was cool.

   In the old Cap’n Crunch commercials, Quaker Oats, which produced the sugar bomb cereal, showed it alongside eggs, bacon and toast and called it “part of a complete breakfast.  No, said humorist Dave Barry, it is “on the same table with” a complete breakfast or “adjacent to” a complete breakfast.

   Was the tambourine like that, a musical sugar coating on the real product that stuck to your ribs?

   My thought in the old days was if you were a singer but couldn’t play a real instrument they would give you a tambourine, just so you’d have something to do. (If you ever heard me play keyboard you’d probably hand me a tambourine.)

    That’s not entirely fair but it’s a sentiment you do see repeated online.

   But what ever happened to the tambourine anyway?  You don’t hear it in use so much in new music.  How did the instrument go from ubiquitous to rare?

   “Seems to me they’ve all but totally vanished from pop music these days. You heard them everywhere in the 60s & 70s. But after that, you heard them only sporadically in popular songs,” wrote someone with the user name Rickenbacher on www.progressiveears.org.

   “I wonder if part of it isn’t the way the sound of music has evolved,” writes Guitargeek on the same website. “As instrument sounds changed, specifically with regards to guitar tunes, drum sounds, synths, etc., I wonder if the tambourine got squeezed out because it was in the way of the new stuff.”

   “A lot of times someone playing a tambourine would be playing eighth or sixteenth note rhythms, and as sequencers became more prominent in popular mix, they kind of took over that rhythmic role,” Guitargeek theorizes. “And if you go to a robot doing mathematically perfect sixteenth notes, with a percussionist who let’s say isn’t being quite as rhythmically perfect, I imagine a lot of producers were inclined to say, ‘lose the tambourine.’”

   The instrument has its defenders.

  “I have always maintained that a song isn’t complete until the tambourine track has been added,” said Jason Brinkworth on www.hudsonmusic.com.

   The website stardustlanes.com has nominated 39 members of a tambourine players’ hall of fame. The would-be enshrines include, Davy Jones of the Monkees, Linda McCartney of Wings, Roger Daltry of The Who, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Mick Jagger and Stevie Nicks.

  The website defends the honor of the instrument and those who play it, noting first, that anyone can play the tambourine.   

   “And all too often this fact has led most people to consider the tambourine player a joke. We think this could not be more wrong-minded,” the website reads.

   “It is sad that most people and critics misunderstand the tambourine and its artistes, viewing it as mere prop, something to be bent to the stage dramas enacted by lead singers, or something for them to do during solos by other ‘real’ musicians.”

    “The great tambourine player dilemma is this: a good guitar player is lauded for using his or her instrument to convey emotion (While my guitar gently weeps, anyone?). But God forbid a tambourine player consider or even attempt such a feat, he or she would only meet with derision and scorn.”

   So the tambourine is the subject of a debate of sorts, though I can’t say it’s exactly raging.

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